The Front Yard by Keally L. Cieslik

This year, the front yard is a garden gone wild. An unruly thing. A bobbing field of bitter arugula. The herbage is higher than my waist. The sunflowers are already taller than me, and the bushy hop vine reached the top of its pole weeks ago. The intersection, an offset, four-way stop, is surrounded on three corners by mature trees: maple, birch, a giant conifer. Their leaves flutter in the breeze. When I look out at the whole scene and let my eyes soften, it becomes a placid green blur. I love the yard untamed. The plum tree, still young, grows mightier each day and the skin of her fruits, still small and hard in June, gleams in the light. The sunflowers feel defiant and possible in the face of all that has been lost.

I sit on our front porch facing this intersection, where a year ago, my housemate, my friend, stood tending his tomato plants. A car drove by, and while Jonathan tied string along a wire to help the vines grow tall and strong, the vehicle’s passenger shot him twice in the back.

I sit here, and the birds chirp, probably the same way they did a year ago. Our dog lies on her belly, snoozing in the same spot. A gray cat tiptoes her white paws across the road. Jonathan is paralyzed from the mid-abdomen down, a result of the random drive-by shooting. A year later, he is a graceful wheelchair user, a joyful father of a ten-month-old, an ever-generous housemate, and a still-devoted spouse.

And, we are all changed. Our entire household: Jonathan; Val, his wife; Hannah, my wife; and I are all changed. We have spent the past year grieving, raging, dissociating, tuning back in, and trying to search out meaning, a future, and a deeper politics to hold all that has happened. I have spent considerable time searching for the wisdom of my own body and for the inherent worth and dignity of all bodies. Finding what it means to be unruly and proud. Finding what it feels like to love my body and all bodies, not because of what they can do, but because they are. And I have felt the nauseous sinking churn in my gut when another shooting takes place in our town. Our state. And our country.

A kid on a scooter flies through the intersection and I can’t help but wince. He’s not wearing a helmet and he barely stops to check for cars. I want to shout after him, “Don’t you know bad things can happen here? Don’t you know that one minute everything can be fine and you can be planning to play a quick game of pickleball before dinner, and the next minute you can almost die in your own front yard?”

The summer unspools and the thermometer in Yakima soars past 100 degrees. The yard goes from wild to overgrown, past the point of respectability in our neighborhood. Weeds with prickly thorns shoot skyward. The arugula goes to seed. It is brittle and brown. I wade into the thicket of it, and the seed pods with their sharp seams scratch my legs and arms, leaving behind bright red lines. I am comforted to see how the yard has become feral, like us, knit together and sliced through by grief.

It’s July, and I’m alone for a few weeks at home, everyone else off traveling, when I get the notice from the city. A bright orange piece of paper left on our front porch. A carefree scrawl informs us that the sunflowers and vegetation have grown so tall that visibility at the intersection is impaired and we are, apparently, in violation of the municipal code. For me, the yard, which wraps around two sides of the house, feels like a protective layer, nestling the house in a shroud. Not so, in the eyes of the city. We have two weeks to perform the required yardwork. I pick up the notice and snap a photo, ready to send it to my housemates. I start to type out a text message, “Guys, what the fuck, some asshole must have complained to the city about the front yard, can you believe it?!” But I delete it. I try again, attempting to take it down a notch, “Can you believe this?” Delete. “Hey guys, just a heads up…” I delete again and then give the phone’s home button a quick double-click. The messaging app hovers, and I swipe up to close out the whole thing. What’s the point?

In our neighborhood, people pride themselves on their manicured lawns. Lawns cared for by workers who live in nearby, worlds-away neighborhoods. I want to run around our chirpy verdant neighborhood and scream. Weedy lawns are not where we should be directing our energy, people! Who cares about weedy lawns when around us the gun violence continues, unabated—when, across the country, similarly senseless violence takes place every god damn day?

I don’t text the picture. I don’t text anything. I place the notice on the dining room table. It’s just me and the dog at home. I eat my cereal and re-examine the notice, trying to imagine the person behind the handwriting. I keep wondering if they know what happened at this intersection. If they know what violence happened right here. Right where my gaze lands. The corner we see when we eat dinner in the dining room or drink coffee on the couch. Do they know that Val and Jonathan went out in the spring and planted those sunflowers? Jonathan rolling out to the street corner with the baby on his lap and Val bent over planting seeds in the soft spring earth. An act of defiance and hope. Of reclamation.

I want to pick up the phone and demand to speak to someone in charge. “How dare you?” I want to say. “How dare you tell us what to do in our front yard?” A place we now steel ourselves to enter, a place where we find ourselves ducking, crouching, flinching—or forcing ourselves not to—every time a car drives by.

Instead, I go to the garage and pull down the big garden clippers from the hook on the wall. I tie the dog to her tether, then step into the tangled mess of weeds and sunflowers. I’ll do a selective harvest, I say to myself, as I go back and forth between the garden and the stop sign, trying to assess visibility. Each time I cut down a sunflower, I feel like I should shout, “Timber!” The stalks are a kind of springy, slender tree trunk. My first round of cutting is sparse. I leave the pile of harvested plants in the grass so that any city inspector will see that we’ve made an effort.

A few days later, the pile of yard waste is gone. Someone has kindly cleared it away for us. I feel a sense of guilt for my earlier indignation. There is kindness and goodness in this neighborhood. Our community wants to help. They helped from the moment Jonathan was shot. They repainted our house and mowed our lawn for months. They delivered too many homemade meals to count. They are trying, our neighbors, and anyway, I don’t really know who called the city. Maybe it wasn’t a neighbor. It doesn’t really matter, I decide. I’ll most likely never know.

About a week later, we get a call that the corner is still in violation. I go back outside and cut down a more complete triangle to improve the sightline at the stop sign. I smash weeds and splintery dried stalks into the large green yard waste bin, now filled to the top with the corner’s excessive overgrowth.

A week or so later, everyone back from their travels, we get a third call. The municipal code requires a triangle of visibility fifteen feet by one hundred and twenty feet. The public works employee has been out to the corner and marked the curbs with spray paint, creating an enormous triangle within which all vegetation needs to be cut. The next Saturday morning I wake up early and pull on my sneakers. I grab the clippers from the hook in the garage and march out to the corner. You want a clear cut? I’ll give you a clear cut. I’ll slash and burn this whole plot. I hack down sunflowers, weeds, skeletal arugula plants, and whatever else lies in my path with a fury I don’t recognize. A raw reaping of whatever’s still standing. Later, Val, Jonathan, and Hannah come outside to help and we finish clearing the yard. Full compliance with municipal code looks like shit, but we don’t care. We just want the city to stop calling.

What does the world owe us, I wonder, my indignation still a tangle of roots below the surface. What does the world owe Jonathan after violence like this? What do we owe the world? What would it have been like if the city had invested as many resources in preventing gun violence as they did in monitoring our yard maintenance? What would it have looked like if the prosecutor’s office had been as invested in Jonathan’s healing as the municipal worker was in our compliance with the code? What would it have looked like if the public works department had invested as many resources in the nearby, worlds-away neighborhood where there is no public swimming pool, where there aren’t enough programs or resources for young people, where gun violence is not a rarity but a pervasive part of life?

A few weeks later, I sit on the porch and look at the stop sign on the corner where we taped a piece of paper. It says “Gun Violence” beneath the blocky white letters. It’s not enough. It feels like nothing will ever be enough. I examine the patchy marks blossoming red and pink on my arms. I trace my fingers over the scratches, small zippers along my legs. I stare at the raggedy piece of paper. Soon, the sign will get soggy and fall off. Soon, the scratches and blotches on my skin will fade. Soon, there won’t be any evidence that we were there, that Jonathan was shot while tending his tomatoes, that there was a forest of sunflowers and that they represented reclamation. Eventually, the yard will be landscaped and manicured and made neat again.  One day, only the plum tree will remain.

Keally Cieslik (she/her) is a queer immigrants’ rights attorney. She lives in central Washington with her wife, Hannah and their housemates. She loves the public library, sending snail mail, and the infinite promise of labor unions.